Commentary / Japan

How Tokyo can deal with Trump unilateralism

by Stephen R. Nagy

Contributing Writer

Two decades of economic stagnation and revolving political leadership in Japan has given way to the longest period of political stability since World War II.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s victory Thursday in the Liberal Democratic Party presidential election has allowed him to consolidate his position as the uncontested political leader of the ruling party and permits him to stay in power until 2021.

That political stability will be needed to deal with the numerous areas of instability in the international system today.

First and foremost is the Japan-U.S. alliance, which is being tested by the mercurial leadership in the Trump White House. The United States is pressuring Japan for a free, fair and reciprocal bilateral free trade agreement to reduce the bilateral trade deficit.

This explains part of Tokyo’s concern with Washington, but even before this Japan has been worried by many of the Trump administration’s unilateral decisions in the region, such as halting joint South Korea-U.S. military exercises on the peninsula and accepting the summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in June.

In themselves, these decisions would not be so hard to understand if they were based on a discernible long-term strategy that was communicated to allies and partners alike. The problem is there has been no such strategy.

For example, pushing a bilateral FTA with Tokyo to decrease the bilateral deficit between the two countries is neither necessary nor practical. The deficit can be reduced by Tokyo through the purchase of arms, energy and some agricultural products, which Tokyo has already put on the table, rather than an automobile-for-beef exchange that would not decrease the deficit.

Moreover, in the wake of the U.S.-China trade war, we have seen Washington simultaneously pick trade fights with Japan, Canada and the European Union. Any coherent strategy to execute a successful trade war with China would more practically be prosecuted by working with allies who share similar concerns about Beijing’s trade practices and the long-term intentions of President Xi Jinping.

As highlighted by Akira Amari, a former economic and fiscal policy minister, at his Brookings Institute talk in May, the inconvenient truth for the Trump administration is that staying in the Trans-Pacific Partnership or a modified version of it would have contributed to achieving many of America’s current demands on China.

For Japan (and China), the take-home message is the White House’s trade tactics are not based on economics but potentially transformative geopolitics that may have implications for Japan-U.S. relations.

Here is the conundrum for Abe.

The White House’s behavior is destabilizing many of the postwar institutions, norms and practices that formed the foundation for the Japan-U.S. alliance. At the same time, new 21st century institutions such as the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership are being eschewed for incoherent, short-term political tactics that do not contribute to achieving clear objectives.

For Abe, being openly critical of the lack of consultation may intensify the current instability and make it more difficult for Japan to manage security issues in the region.

The Abe administration’s responses to date have been to refrain from public criticism of the Trump administration, seek clarification on U.S. intentions through consultation, and clarify Japan’s positions and its support for the alliance. This will continue at the leadership level. At the same time, the Japanese government will spare no effort to assess if off-the-cuff comments or tweets have any teeth at the institutional level.

Japan needs to work in concert with the U.S. to deal with a nuclear North Korea, as it is on the front lines of Pyongyang’s short- and mid-range conventional and nonconventional missile systems.

Furthermore, the trajectory of North Korea’s development impacts Japan’s security as well. If Pyongyang strengthens relations with China and South Korea through proposed inter-Korean infrastructure, this would be bad news for Japan. The three countries might form an anti-Japanese trifecta, connected through Korean and “Belt and Road” infrastructure and energized by Russian energy exports. This would leave Japan isolated in the region and subject to the political whims of a Beijing-led grouping.

Without a stable Japan-U.S. alliance buoyed by strong trade relations, Tokyo will be unable to ensure that the evolution of the Korean Peninsula is acceptable to Japan’s long-term interests. This would revive the old fears of the Korean Peninsula being “a dagger pointed at the heart of Japan.”

The same can be said for the necessity of cooperation in the East China Sea, South China Sea and Indian Ocean. While Japan may today be able to stave off a potential incidents related to the Senkaku Islands, the expansion of China’s naval and merchant fleets will overwhelm Japan’s capacity to push back against “lawfare” tactics in the future.

The expansion of Japan’s strategic partnerships in the Indo-Pacific are important initiatives to send the message to Beijing that Tokyo will work with partners to maintain its national interests. Lobbying extra-regional powers like Britain and France to conduct joint naval exercises as well as Canada and Australia to send naval vessels to the region further strengthens Tokyo’s efforts to enforce international law and rule-based behavior by all stakeholders in the region.

Notwithstanding the contributions of the extra-regional powers, it’s the U.S. that has the capacity, experience and security footprint in the region to make a real difference.

Without a robust Japan-U.S. alliance, the new Indo-Pacific concept, the Quad, and Japan’s Free and Open Indo-Pacific Strategy will have little clout.

Here again, Abe will have to find ways in his newly strengthened position to inculcate stability and predictability into the Japan-U.S. alliance and his relationship with Trump. He can do this by enhancing cooperation and empowering current members of the Quad but also actively seeking out new partners that can bring their comparative advantages to these nascent institutions.

Clarity concerning U.S. foreign policy toward Japan and the Indo-Pacific is emerging. The “America First” president seems to prioritize economic re-calibration over long-standing comprehensive relations as embodied in the Japan-U.S. alliance.

Nevertheless, Abe should seek to strengthen the alliance by finding meaningful ways to bolster Japan’s contributions — such as through more joint training and freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea. These decrease the U.S. burden and thus are effective ways to placate an U.S. administration that is tethered to a focus on reciprocal relationships in the realm of economics.

Tokyo can and should further its position through a nonconfrontational approach with the Trump presidency by finding other ways to mitigate economic disparities, such as purchasing more arms, energy and agricultural products.

Japan’s geographic position, economic weight and close institutional relations with the U.S. at many different levels makes Tokyo an indispensable partner. Abe needs to highlight the positive role Japan can play in dealing with the region’s most pressing issues — from North Korea’s nuclear program to an emerging Chinese superpower.

Stephen R. Nagy is a senior associate professor of international relations and politics at the International Christian University, Tokyo. An earlier version of this article was published Sept. 20 in the Policy Forum.